Food systems study reveals the EU’s major role in the biodiversity crisis

Combine harvester in a field. The EU's food systems are driving biodiversity loss.
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The EU’s food systems have been destroying nature at a rate faster than ecosystems can regenerate, a new study has found. Accordingly, the findings identified the EU’s food-based ecological footprint as a significant factor in the global biodiversity crisis.

The rampant destruction of the diverse life on Earth is one of the most alarming concerns currently facing the world. What’s more, global food systems are the primary driver of this rapid biodiversity decline.

As such, the new study in Nature Food situated the EU’s food production, consumption, and waste patterns within the context of this ecological loss.

EU food systems causing ecological destruction

Extractive human activities currently threaten over 1 million species with extinction, some within decades. That was the finding of the most recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) assessment in 2019. Moreover, in recent years, wildlife populations have plummeted globally. The World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) 2022 Living Planet Report found that, since 1970, wildlife populations have on average dropped by 69%.

The intricate network of diverse life is vital in shaping the healthy, thriving ecosystems that humans and other species depend on. A breakdown in biodiversity threatens the production of natural resources crucial to survival.

Ironically, the unsustainable harvesting of food produce is in fact also causing huge ecological decline. A previous study identified the conversion of forests and grasslands to grazing and agriculture as the biggest driver of biodiversity loss.

Ecological deficit

Now, the new Nature study has pinpointed exactly why the EU is in dire need of overhauling its broken food systems. In particular, these food systems play an outsized part in depleting ecosystems across the bloc and worldwide.

Read on...

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Specifically, food drove nearly a third of the region’s ecological destruction between 2004 and 2014. The study compared the ‘ecological footprint’ – the impact on nature – of different consumption sectors. Food came out top, above personal transportation, housing, household goods, and services.

In addition, the study found that the EU had an ‘ecological deficit’.. Essentially, EU citizens utilise natural produce faster than its ecosystems could replenish it. While citizens’ ecological footprint fell by 20% between 2004 and 2014, the deficit remained. This was because the region’s ‘biocapacity’ – that is, ecosystems’ capacity to produce the natural resources that people depend on – also fell. Significantly, food took up over half of this biocapacity during the study period.

Food footprints

Five countries were responsible for the bulk of the ecological food footprint. Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland drove nearly 70% of the food-based impact.

However, when it came to countries’ per capita ecological footprint, a different pattern emerged. Using this metric, Luxembourg came out ahead of all other EU nations. Lithuania, Latvia, Belgium and Estonia followed behind in the top five.

Taking these per capita footprints into account, the study found that high income levels, household purchasing power, and food habits played a role. Notably, the study concurred with previous research on the ecological impact of animal versus plant-based foods.

Beef and fish habits

Honing in on specific countries, the new analysis identified how the consumption of meat and fish significantly contributed to nations’ ecological footprints. In particular, this applied to countries that consumed high levels of beef, or fish that are high up the food chain, such as tuna, swordfish, and cod.

Beef and fish eating habits were therefore a major factor for countries with high per capita footprints. As a result, the research stated that:

our analysis demonstrates that animal products (meat, fish, and to a lesser extent, dairy) are highly resource-intensive compared with plant-based foods, by both weight and nutritional unit.

Moreover, it noted that:

plant-based foods (for example, vegetables) constitute the primary item in the diets of only 8 of the 27 EU countries

Given this, the study suggested that reducing meat, fish and dairy intake would be an important component in addressing the EU’s role in the biodiversity crisis. In particular, it detailed how:

replacing about half of the beef meat intake with kcal obtained from beans and other pulses could contribute up to a 7% reduction in the per capita FF [food footprint] of EU-27 citizens.

Alongside meat- and fish-centred diets, waste was another major source of ecological harm. In particular, the study noted that eliminating food waste across the board could reduce the EU’s food-related ecological footprint by an average of 13%.

Destruction beyond EU borders

On top of this, the study also found that nearly a quarter of the biocapacity needed to sustain EU food consumption patterns originated from outside its borders. In other words, the EU’s unsustainable eating habits have been feeding the decimation of ecosystems in countries beyond the bloc.

Significantly, the EU was a drain on ‘ecological assets’ such as crop and grazing land, forest products, and fishing grounds of multiple countries outside the EU. For example, it sourced a notable proportion of its food from countries like Brazil, China, and Argentina.

Brazil and Argentina are two hotspots for Amazon deforestation. Companies are largely driving this forest loss to make space for soy production and cattle ranching. In fact, a 2020 study found that at least a fifth of Europe’s soy and beef from Brazil originated from deforested land. Friends of the Earth Europe has also implicated European financiers in this destruction.

The new study therefore argued that it showed the need for “new or strengthened food trade policies”.

Food system changes falling short

However, while the new study starkly illustrated the need for food systems change, EU transformation is so far falling woefully short. The EU’s Farm to Fork strategy is a major part of the bloc’s answer to its ailing, nature-wrecking food system. The sustainable food plan is the food-centred pillar in the European Commission’s (EC) Green New Deal initiative.

Introducing the Farm to Fork strategy in May 2020, the EC aimed to address a series of agricultural and food-based issues. This included, for example, the overuse of hazardous pesticides and fertilisers, supply chain problems, and unsustainable production.

Of course, green groups have pointed out that the plan has multiple holes. For example, the strategy only committed the EU to cutting ecologically-ruinous pesticides by 50%. In addition, it lacked plans to promote a reduction in the consumption of animal-based produce.

On top of this, campaign groups have criticised the global impact of the strategy. For instance, the Centre for Africa-Europe Relations has pointed out that the programme could threaten food security in Africa.

Big agribusiness muscling in

From the get-go, food industry heavyweights also beleaguered the design of the framework. Big agribusiness lobbied to stifle the already inadequate binding targets on pesticides, for instance.

What’s more, progress on the Farm to Fork strategy now appears to have stalled. At the EU’s State of the Union address on 13 September, European Commission (EC) president Ursula von der Leyen failed to mention the strategy. The marked absence of the flagship sustainable food framework led pan-European media site EURACTIV to declare that the programme “is dead”. Moreover, days before the address, EU officials told the Financial Times that the EC had shelved the strategy.

While momentum on the Farm to Fork strategy appears to be waning, the new Nature Food study has laid out the environmental cost of continuing business as usual. The analysis’s findings renewed the argument that the EU needs to implement a truly ambitious system-wide shift to a sustainable food set up. To save vital biodiverse life on Earth, nothing less will do.

Feature image via Lars Plougmaan/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

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